First generation student? Try these five ways to manage college costs

According to a Temple University survey, students whose parents only had a high school diploma or no diploma at all struggled more with financial issues such as food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness than students whose parents had some college or a bachelor’s degree. 

In other words, it’s not just tuition and fees that you need to plan for if you’re the first in your family to go to college. You also have to factor in basic living expenses. Taking time to research all the different ways to manage the extra costs of getting a degree can make your college experience easier to navigate. 

1. Start with scholarships and grants

Scholarship and grant funding should be at the top of your list of ways to finance going to school as a first generation student. 

Why? Because scholarships and grants typically don’t need to be paid back. As long as you maintain any eligibility requirements established by the scholarship or grant program, you’ll continue receiving free money for school. 

So, where can you find scholarships and grants as a first-gen student? The good news is, there are lots of places you can find funding, including:

  • Scholarships and grant programs offered by public companies
  • Private foundation grants and scholarships
  • Award programs from non-profit organizations
  • Your school (or schools) of choice 

If you’ve already been accepted to the school you plan to attend, the financial aid office should be able to help with details on scholarships and grants offered by the school. They may also be able to help point you toward online resources, such as scholarship databases, where you can find additional funding to pay for college.

2. Look into federal grants and loans

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an important step in the college planning process. This form is what the Department of Education uses to determine how much federal grant and student loan you qualify for. 

Taking on student loans to pay for college may not be ideal, but there might not be a way around it if scholarships or grants are out of reach. The good thing about federal loans is that they’re low-interest debt. And once you’re out of college, you can take advantage of income-driven repayment plans to make your payments manageable. 

Private student loans can also help fill in funding gaps to pay for school. A few things to know about private loans:

  • Interest rates may be higher than federal loans
  • Lenders check your credit score as part of the approval process
  • Private loans don’t offer income-driven repayment plans 

If you don’t have credit yet, you may need a cosigner to get a private loan. Your cosigner’s credit can influence the interest rate you pay. 

3. Check your eligibility for public aid programs

Scholarships, grants and loans can help with tuition, books, fees and other expenses paid to the school but that may just be the tip of the iceberg with your college budget. 

Depending your household income and family size, you might be able to qualify for public aid benefits to help you get through school. For example, you may be able to get housing assistance or benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

The Lifetime Assistance Program can help with free or low-cost cell phone service for eligible students. There’s also a chance you could get Medicaid but this will ultimately depend on the income guidelines for your state.

4. Take advantage of on- and off-campus freebies or discounts

Being a first generation student means you may not have the inside scoop on free campus perks. But these can be an easy way to save money and cut down on your cost of living.

Check to see if your school offers free programs or benefits such as:

  • Student health insurance.
  • Fitness center access.
  • Food pantries.

These are some of the most important things you might be interested in as a budget-conscious student. But you should also look into other perks such as career counseling, free on-campus entertainment and of course, all of the free study resources and materials your campus library has to offer. 

Getting a discount can be almost as good as getting something for free when you’re just starting college. Once you get your student ID, take advantage of it by using it to save money whenever possible. 

For example, if you’re living off-campus and driving to class every day, your car insurance company might offer you a student discount. If you don’t have a car, check ride-sharing or local taxi services to see if they cut students a break. 

Some other places to check for student deals: restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters and office supply stores.

5. Consider a credit card

A credit card is one last way to help finance your school costs as a first generation student. You could also save yourself some money if you’re using a rewards card to cover your living expenses. 

The 2009 CARD Act prevents you from getting a credit card of your own if you’re under 21, unless you have proof of your own income. Assuming you’re working your way through school, you may be able to get a student credit card or a regular credit card to help manage spending. Student cards typically have features and benefits that are designed to appeal to students. 

Before opening any credit card account, remember to consider the Annual Percentage Rate. This is the interest rate you’ll pay if you carry a balance. Also, take a close look at fees, including the annual fee so you know what the card will cost. 

If you’re looking for recommendations, checking out our top picks for Best Credit Cards and Best Student Credit Cards.

Rebecca Lake

Personal finance writer and small business expert

Rebecca lives on the North Carolina coast with her two children an assorted collection of pets. In addition to freelance writing, she also authors a blog focused on making and saving money.